All Four Kids: An Interview with Jen Swann Downey, Author of The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand


Today we’re talking with Jen Swann Downey, author of the madcap middle grade adventure, The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand.


Cover of 'The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand'When Dorrie and her brother Marcus chase Moe—an unusually foul-tempered mongoose—into the janitor’s closet of their local library, they make an astonishing discovery: the headquarters of a secret society of ninja librarians.

Their mission: protect those whose words get them into trouble, anywhere in the world and at any time in history.

Petrarch’s Library is an amazing, jumbled, time-traveling secret base that can dock anywhere there’s trouble, like the Spanish Inquisition, or ancient Greece, or…Passaic, New Jersey. Dorrie would love nothing more than to join the society, fighting injustice with a real sword! But when a traitor surfaces, she and Marcus are prime suspects. Can they clear their names before the only passage back to the twenty-first century closes forever?

The Ninja Librarians will be published on April 15th 2014 by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky.

Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | BAM | Powell’s | Goodreads

Hi Jen. Congratulations on the publication of The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand! Can you start by telling us what or who inspired you to become a writer in the first place?

I explicitly said “I want to be a ____” MANY times in my young life. Often I shouted it. For instance, after watching a mini-documentary on Zoom (old PBS kids show for those not quite as ancient as I am.) about a kid who jogged regularly, I absolutely instantaneously wanted to become a “jogger”. (I did get a “jogging suit” for my birthday but sadly, after two very demanding “jogs” around the block, I gave up on the Zoom “kid-jogger” dream.

I’m not sure, however, that I ever said (or shouted) “I want to be a writer”. I just wrote. From the time I was eight, when I got my first diary. (Blue with gold lines inside. “Today, Alexis and I bothered her next door neighbor…” Riveting stuff!).

Before anyone despairs about ever publishing a book because of how you didn’t start writing when you were eight, let me assure you that I was almost entirely disinterested in writing stories. I wrote journal entries, to do lists, rules for neighborhood clubs, letters to George McGovern (He sent back a pin!), notes home from camp, more diary entries detailing all the ways in which I had fallen madly in love with Steve Dent, and then his friend Norby Bryzinsky, and then his friend Lyle Dalton, and neighborhood newsletters, and then articles in grubby neighborhood newspapers, and then not so grubby publications, and then one day I did feel inspired to say: I want to write a book. A kid’s book. For the not so young, not so old kids. A book about a kid and a library.

Petrarch’s Library, the headquarters of the Lybrarians, into which Dorrie falls is a chaotic collision of libraries from throughout history. If you found yourself in accidentally dropped into Petrarch’s library, what would you go looking for first?

You’re with me, right? Well, first we’d strap on some roller-skates since Petrarch’s Library is such a sprawling place, and roller-skating across marble floors is just undeniable fun. Mind the priceless urns! Hard to choose, but I’d probably plead that we check out the visual feast of the Admont Abbey Library.

Admont Abbey Library, Austria

Admont Abbey Library, Austria

Once there, we’d take off our skates and have a contest to find the secret doors that lead to the galleries above the main floor. Up in the galleries, we’d pull out random white leather-bound books from the shelves, sit in one of the sunny window alcoves that overlooks the sea that surrounds Petrarch’s Library, and take turns reading passages out loud, hoping to stumble on a long-lost secret. Don’t tell Mistress Wu, but we may eat some PB and J sandwiches up there, too.

Reading The Ninja Librarians, I can tell you had a fantastic time writing it. What’s your personal favorite bit of the book?

Wow, it would sound pretty vainglorious to say I’m having a hard time choosing but I’m easily overwhelmed, and I never thought about how I’d answer if some roughs put me up against a building and said, “Your Favorite Part, or Your Life”! Um…sweating it out here. Okay. Favorite emotional moment? Probably when Dorrie, near the end of the story reminds Savi about the question he asked her earlier in the story, and then gives her answer. Favorite goofball moment? Probably when Dorrie and Marcus, after chasing Moe the Mongoose into the library, have to confront one very unhappy librarian.

Personally, I single-handedly fund my local library with my overdue fines. Tell the truth. What’s the most overdue library book you’ve ever had out, and how did you escape the wrath of the librarians?

I am the WORST patron! Like you, I play a huge inadvertent fundraising role for my own beloved local library. Over the years there have been books that were unearthed from behind car seats and under beds months and even a year after they were checked out and promptly misplaced. Once we rented a beach house that we had rented five years previously, and discovered one of our missing library books there! I’m ashamed to say that I still own a copy of Henry Huggins that was checked out decades ago from my childhood library…

Cutlass or foil?

One in each hand, but totally made of cardboard for everyone’s safety, but mostly my own.

Rollerskates or bicycle?

Both at once probably wouldn’t be such a good idea, but I might be tempted to try!

As this community is ‘fearless’, we’d like to know something you’re afraid of and something you’re not afraid of.

I am afraid of people with cold eyes, the idea and reality of snake venom, Scotchguard, the banality of evil, and raw wiggly things that come out of shells and pose as food.

I am not afraid of spending time alone, mice, or chipped nails.

Thanks, Jen! Everyone should go out and pre-order The Ninja Librarians right away! It’s an enormous amount of fun.


Photo of Jen Swann Downey.Jen Swann Downey’s non-fiction pieces have appeared in New York Magazine, the Washington Post, Women’s Day, and other publications. Jen divides her time between libraries and other places, and will never stop looking for lickable wallpaper.

You can find Jen on her website, on Twitter, or on Goodreads.

Photo of Patrick SamphireDinosaur hunter. Accidental archeologist. Armchair adventurer. Some of these things may not be true about Patrick Samphire. What is true is that Patrick is the author of the extremely thrilling and sometimes funny middle grade adventure, Secrets of the Dragon Tomb (Christy Ottaviano Books / Henry Holt / Macmillan), coming your way in Spring 2015. He lives in Wales, U.K., where it occasionally doesn’t rain.

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